Friday 29 May 2009

39 - 'Les Récrés du Petit Nicolas' by René Goscinny and Jean-Jacques Sempé

After the recent traumatic tales of the darker side of childhood, I thought it would be nice to finish off a trilogy of kid-lit (my copyright, if there's any money in it) with a short book concentrating on the sunnier side of being young. 'Les Récrés du Petit Nicolas' is a French book about a young boy and the adventures he has at school with his friends. Just as in 'What Maisie Knew', the reader sees events through the eyes of the title character, but in this book, the child's lack of understanding of what adults say and think is substantially more light-hearted.

The seventeen short stories, supplemented by black and white sketches of major scenes, only take up about 120 pages (it is a kid's book, after all!), but Goscinny, who was also involved in the creation of another French icon, Asterix, manages to pack a wide variety of stories and emotions into such a small space. Most of the humour comes from Nicolas' attempts to interpret the language, both verbal and non-verbal, of adults, something he usually manages to get ever-so-slightly (but always amusingly) wrong. For example, when, after a hellish day chasing around after a class of screaming kids at the art gallery, Nicolas' teacher says that she never wants to see another painting in her life, our young hero understands why she is so unhappy; she obviously doesn't like art and never wanted to go to the gallery in the first place. Nicolas also shows himself to be very trusting of what his parents tell him; he talks about a present his father received from his mother, a green-and-red tie which he never wears because he doesn't want to get it dirty...

While the stories are very funny, there are also some very touching scenes. When Nicolas, along with all his friends, catches a tadpole and takes it home, his mother demands that it leave the house immediately (otherwise she will!). It is up to Nicolas' father to gently persuade his son to take the tadpole back to the pond, explaining that the mummy frog will be missing her baby, just as Nicolas' mummy would miss him if someone took him away in a jam jar. Another example is the final story of the book, where Nicolas attends a prize-giving ceremony marking the end of the school year and the last thing between him and the long-awaited school holidays. Only when the ceremony is over, and all his friends have gone away for the summer, does he realise that he won't see them for the next few months and that he is going to be all alone over the holidays. And then he starts crying...

I've read this book (and a couple of other Nicolas collections) several times, and I love the idea of the endless childhood and long-forgotten school days. Whenever I read about Alceste (always with a pain-au-chocolat in his hand), Eudes (permanently ready to start a fight), Clotaire (usually asleep in class) and Agnan (the teacher's pet who needs to keep his glasses on if he is to avoid being set upon by the other kids), it takes me back to the simplicity and innocence of my own childhood. Being grown up has its advantages (and I definitely enjoy not having to sit in detention!), but occasionally I miss running around playing football in the playground, talking to my friends in the bitingly-cold wind and waiting for the bell to ring us back into the classroom. Happy days.

Thursday 28 May 2009

38 - 'Atonement' by Ian McEwan

I recently wrote a review of 'What Maisie Knew', but I thought I'd also tell you a little about how I bought the book (come back, I am going somewhere with this). The university bookshop had one of its periodic outlet sales where they try to flog off surplus copies of paperbacks, some good, some not so good. Most of the books were $10, which, although reasonable, is not good enough to get me to drag my moth-eaten wallet out of my pocket (because I am extremely tigh... sensible with money). Imagine then my excitement (well, a mildly elevated pulse, nothing too energetic; I am English, after all), when I saw two books bundled for the price of one, both of them books that I was quite interested in reading. They were the aforementioned Henry James novel and the subject of this post, 'Atonement'.

There was a reason for the two books' being sold together. Vintage, the publisher, had created ten twin-packs of classic and modern novels based on a common theme, and the theme for these two was 'Lies'. In 'What Maisie knew', the lies were told to the young heroine of the piece; however, in 'Atonement', it is a young girl who tells the lie which is the catalyst for the later, tragic events. Briony Tallis, who is thirteen at the time of the first part of the novel, is a young girl who has turned to literature to deal with growing up, and this escape into fantasy is part of the cause of her behaviour. Disappointed in the play she has tried to stage to welcome her brother home from London, she loses herself in events involving her sister which she observes from a window. By the time tragedy strikes, her mind is in a condition to allow her imagination to override reason. I will say no more (mainly because you may not have read the book - or seen the film!).

One of the interesting aspects of 'Atonement' is the way McEwan creates a book inside a book. Briony later relates the events in a manuscript she sends off to a publisher, but, just as with her real life, it is impossible to have complete faith in the story she tells. At times, the line between McEwan and Briony is blurred, and you're not quite sure who is telling the story (and whether either of them can be trusted). Another nice touch is a letter Briony receives from the publisher; you get the feeling that there may have been a fair bit of McEwan in this scene of literary criticism (perhaps even a bit of tongue-in-cheek revenge for past wrongs at the hand of editors? Just my speculation).

Over the whole story, there hovers a feeling of pressure or suppression, a storm approaching, which can be felt before its arrival. From the unbearable, oppressive June heat of the first part of the novel, to the constant threat of annihilation from the air in the second, the characters appear trapped by circumstances and unable to break out and breathe freely. Cecilia, Briony's elder sister, a recent graduate from Cambridge (in the days when women could study but not receive a degree), feels caged up at her family home in the country but still strangely unable to move away and break the tie. Her mother, Emily, is overcome by blinding migraines which affect her to the point of restricting all movement or thought. Robbie Turner, a family friend and one of the principal characters, flees through the French countryside, expecting death from the sky at any moment. Later, even Briony herself experiences a form of suppression of self when she decides to do her bit for the war effort and steps outside her comfort zone. All these experiences combined give a tense flavour to the flow of the story, a flavour which enhances, rather than spoils, the enjoyment of the novel.

Of course, the major theme of the book is its title; Briony's lifelong effort to make up for her childish error is the main source of atonement, but there are other people who make mistakes (some bigger than others...) and try to erase them in some way later. Sorry; I'm not going to give any more away than that! I'll just say that there is a great twist in the book, and, not having seen the film, I wonder how the big-screen version would handle it. The cynic in me thinks that it probably isn't handled well at all...

Despite that, I would be quite interested in watching the film, to see how the story has been adapted, and, coming from a person who really can't stand spending two hours of his life in a dark room (unless I'm sleeping), that is actually a huge compliment. Reading 'Atonement' has given me a taste for McEwan's writing, and I'll certainly be looking for a few more of his novels soon (but only at a reasonable price). And that's the truth.

Monday 25 May 2009

37 - 'Getting Rich First - Life in a Changing China' by Duncan Hewitt

As you may have noticed, I haven't really reviewed a lot of non-fiction in my little blog. There are two main reasons for that:

1) With my work and studies, I read a lot of journals and articles anyway.

2) I have very little reading time and a lot of fiction I want to read!

However, I do make the occasional exception, and 'Getting Rich First - Life in a Changing China' is one of them. Written by a former BBC World journalist, who has lived in China for over twenty years, this fascinating book gives a broad overview of contemporary life in the world's most populous nation. From urban growth to rural decay, from big business to fine art, the book's thirteen chapters each take one area of Chinese life and attempt to make sense of sky-high economic growth in a communist regime.

The topic of China is an interesting one, both personally and for my adopted homeland. Trade with China, especially in the area of natural resources, is one of the most important factors in staving off the worst of the Global Financial Crisis here in Australia, and our (fairly) new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd (hands up who knew that; I can hear the embarrassed silence from here...), is a bonafide Sinophile, having studied Chinese at university and lived and worked in China before his political career reached such dizzy heights (don't laugh. Being Prime Minister of Australia is a serious job. Who do you think tells all the kangaroos where to go?). Just as Japanese real estate investment was the talk of the town a few decades ago, tales of takeover bids by Chinese companies are now regular fodder for newspapers down under.

I have slightly less of a background regarding China, never having been there and not being able to produce more than a few mumbled expressions ('Ni Hao' and 'Xie Xie' probably won't get me very far with anyone more fluent than a six-month old baby. Or a dog.). However, in my work in international education, China is an ever-present factor. The majority of the students at my college come from mainland China, and, as is the case with most Australian higher education institutes, these full-fee paying students are responsible for providing the college with funds which the government is less than keen on providing. In fact, providing higher education for overseas students is one of the top few Australian export industries (I feel so proud that I'm doing my bit for the country).

Education is a major topic in this book, and Hewitt details the possibilities and strains brought about by a freedom of choice. The children of many wealthier Chinese families, fearing the stress of punishing high school exams and dubious about the effectiveness of local teaching methodology, now have the possibility of jetting overseas to get their tertiary (and, in some cases, secondary) education. Of course, this involves substantial costs, and very few families can even consider this option, but the expense is not the only issue here. The book touches on the problems these exported students face in studying at a young age in a different culture, and, unfortunately, I see this in my role as a Learning Adviser on a regular basis. Many young Chinese students, sent over (often alone) to a country with a different language and culture, are simply not mature enough to cope with the style of independent learning required in the west and retreat into their shells, often failing to acknowledge the offers of assistance from their school or college until it is too late.

While this is unfortunate, some people could only dream of being in a position to be able to mess up their education in this way. Many Chinese children, especially in the countryside, do not even have access to a decent education, and this is also true for the children of economic migrants who flee the countryside for the giant cities of the eastern seaboard. Being registered in their home town, these new urban dwellers have no right to send their children to city schools and often face the choice between sending their children to sub-standard unofficial schools in the city or sending them back to their home town to live with their grandparents. Even if these children make it through a full course of education, the chances of obtaining one of the few places in a top university are extremely slight.

The most surprising topic laid bare in this book is the huge discrepancy in the treatment of urban residents and those who leave the countryside to join them in the big cities. Not only do country dwellers receive less welfare than their urban counterparts, but when they rush to the big city to join them, they are not eligible for even the little state help that remains from the good old days of true communism. This disparity in the treatment of the two groups resembles the way immigrants are treated in other countries; in fact, in a country the size of China, this is pretty much what they are (and, apparently, the locals can have the same attitudes towards the newcomers that many people can display towards foreigners).

This book is a great introduction for anyone with an interest in the country, and I don't really have the space (or the energy) to go into all the topics here now, but one last area I'd like to touch on is the media. The internet has made things a little more transparent despite the best efforts of the Chinese government to keep out information not considered 'necessary' for their citizens; however, one school of thought has it that by allowing a small degree of latitude, the government is able to concentrate on hiding more controversial topics. This was certainly borne out in a recent conversation at lunch with a friend of mine, a largely apolitical Chinese student who recently graduated from a Masters course at an Australian university. I'd read an article the previous week about the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown and the reaction to it by politicians and Chinese students in Australia, and (with a little caution) I told him about the news story and asked if he knew much about it. His reply?

He'd never heard of it.

Friday 22 May 2009

36 - 'What Maisie Knew' by Henry James

I do try. From time to time, I pick up a Henry James book, and I tell myself that this is a very famous author with wonderful insights into the human condition, convincing myself that this time will be different, this time I'll really enjoy it.

Never works.

Unfortunately, this time was no exception. The major feeling I had on completing 'What Maisie Knew' was one of relief, which is never a sign of a fun time had by all. Less than 300 pages, but it seemed like an eternity. So what went wrong?

Let me just clarify my opinion before I am summarily arrested, tried and executed by the HJ Fan Club (of which at least one of my faithful followers is a member...). I am not saying that I didn't like this book; I did, to a certain extent. I am not saying that it's not a good book; there is plenty to appreciate about the story and the style. The problem is that where with my previous read, 'Middlemarch', I was stealing as many minutes as possible from the day to read the next chapter or two (or ten), with this book, I pretty much only read on the train to and from work and spent large amounts of time staring out of the window. At fog (it's almost Winter here in Melbourne, and yes, it does get cold). This is the third James novel I've read, the others being 'The Europeans' and 'The Bostonians', and I'm beginning to wonder...

The story itself is an interesting one. A young English girl is used as a pawn in the messy divorce of her parents with both wanting custody of her only to annoy the other as much as humanly (or diabolically) possible. Maisie, the young heroine of the peace, entusted to the care of a governess, is made to shuttle from one house to the next and back again, all the while being exposed to the less-than-polite behaviour of her (frankly idiotic) parents. When both remarry, their game changes from one of keeping Maisie to that of trying to offload her onto the other, a game that becomes further complicated when the two step-parents become fond of Maisie, and consequently, each other. At the end of the book, Maisie, slightly older (and, hopefully, wiser) has to finally decide where her loyalties lie.

The action is seen entirely through Maisie's eyes; she is present in every scene, and this is both a strength and a weakness. The reader experiences events through the filter of Maisie's youthful naiveity and must piece the story together from the fragments gathered by the young girl. However, this style of story-telling also has the effect of being, in my opinion, slightly repetitive. The novel consists mainly of endless conversations between two of the adults which Maisie tries to follow and conversations between the little girl and one of her guardians where the adult uses her as a sounding board for their thoughts, not really talking to her at all.

The biggest issue I have though is with the language used and especially the convoluted style James uses to write his books. Never using one word where three clauses will do just as well, he spends page upon page on expressing something other writers would fit onto the back of an envelope. Although it is probably this very style which endears him to a lot of people, I am not a big fan (and secretly think that it was sometimes done just to show that he could). I suspect that having gone through the tangle of double negatives and multiple relative clauses James delighted in pouring out, whatever I read next will seem like one of my daughter's picture books (which are very good by the way; lots of princesses and animals, although not usually in the same story).

Yes, as a writer he is fit, but (to misquote a song you may or may not know) don't he know it. Henry James is the literary equivalent of a busty blonde flicking her hair back and sauntering along the beach, a trail of love-struck admirers in her wake. Ugly metaphor? Probably. Harsh? Not if you had read the ten-page essay accompanying my edition of 'What Maisie Knew' where James outlined what he wanted to do in the book and what issues he had with finding the right voice for his protagonists - and where he basically said that it was brilliant and he was a genius (I paraphrase; I don't have time to copy it out the way he said it). I'll probably give him another go, particularly as I haven't read some of his most famous works ('The Portrait of a Lady', 'The Wings of the Dove'), but I'll give myself some time to build up to the effort. And that, after all, as I said at the start, is what disappoints me; while reading should be a pleasure, reading anything by Henry James seems like more of a chore.

OK, I'm ready for the handcuffs...

Sunday 17 May 2009

35 - 'Breath' by Tim Winton

Are you breathing comfortably? Then let's begin...

It's not something you think much about, breathing, unless you're having major issues with it, but in Tim Winton's latest novel, breathing is integral to the story. The Australian author returns to his West Australian stomping ground to tell the tale of paramedic Bruce 'Pikelet' Pike, reminiscing about a period of his adolesence after coming back from an incident at work. The tale of the young Pikelet, living in a small, isolated town close to the West Australian coast, takes us through his development from a scared young boy into a teenager throwing himself into the ocean surf.

From the moment we meet him, he is starting to yearn to break away from the sleepy town which is 'suffocating' him, and everything which happens afterwards is an attempt to take risks and be something out of the ordinary. The question raised by the book is how far you should go to raise yourself above the crowd, to be something more than ordinary, without losing control of who you really are. Although Pikelet survives his youthful tribulations, he does not get through without scars, both physical and mental, as can be seen from the very start of the tale.

The title is well chosen: the allusions to breathing (or a lack thereof) are scattered throughout the book. Whether trying to escape from the claustrophobic environment of his hometown, listening to his father's sleep apnoea, or staying at the bottom of the freezing local river for as long as possible, Pikelet constantly experiences the extraordinary feelings associated with a lack of what most people take for granted. This theme of oxygen-starvation culminates in scenes which would seem startling in isolation yet appear to be a natural end to the progression of preceding events.

Winton is very good at taking readers' breath away (as you'd know if you had read my review of 'The Riders'), and this is another great piece of work. The only criticism I have is that it is a fairly short novel; it's 265-pages long, but there's plenty of white space around (and between) the actual words. It only took me just over two hours to get through the whole thing, and I always feel a little cheated when that happens. Of course, when you've just finished 'Middlemarch', anything under 500 pages is going to leave you feeling short-changed...

This is a 'Bildungsroman' for the surfing generation, but, unlike many books of this genre, the hero does not come through the testing fires of his formative years without a scratch. We are left pondering the dangers of growing up and thanking our lucky stars that we got through our teenage period in one piece. Anybody looking back on their childhood can probably remember turning points where things could have gone badly wrong (whether they involve surfing or not). Luckily, for most of us, after a short airless period, our lungs resumed sucking in oxygen and life went on with no real consequences. Winton shows us that it's not always that simple.

Thursday 14 May 2009

34 - 'Middlemarch' by George Eliot

I live in Melbourne, a big city on the south-east coast of Australia, where the sun always shines, beer is cheap and kangaroos bound happily down the road of an evening (sadly, none of those things are true). However, my home town is Coventry, a small city located in the centre of England, where the skies are grey, beer is expensive and people can be a bit mental (sadly, all of those things are true). So what, you may ask; what does all this have to do with the critical review I am about to unleash? Well, dear reader, the fact of the matter is that Middlemarch is Coventry, and Coventry is Middlemarch. Confused? Read on.

George Eliot was born (a long time ago, let's not get bogged down by details) near Nuneaton, now a small satellite town of Coventry. She moved to the larger town in her teens, spending many of her formative years there, and when she was looking to write a grand novel set in a provincial centre, my home town was the pattern for the book (hurray!). The setting is crucial for 'Middlemarch'; the book is set in the years around 1832, when the great Reform Bill (abolishing many 'rotten boroughs' and increasing the number of people able to vote in elections) was the talk of the nation. By using a semi-urban centre away from the capital, Eliot was able to show the changing society of early-nineteenth century England as social mobility became a reality. In a town of substantial, but not national, importance, we can more easily see the interplay between events and people. Many of the characters in 'Middlemarch' rise or fall in class and social standing over the course of a few short years, affected by external events or their own rash decisions or shortcomings; Fred Vincy, disappointed in his hopes for a large inheritance, voluntarily descends in the social order by taking up a job which involves some manual labour while Caleb Garth and Vicar Farebrother both end the story richer and more successful than when it began.

One of the major causes of change of class is, of course, marriage, something which is all too common in what Henry James describes as the great, baggy monsters that are Victorian novels. Unusually, however, some of Eliot's marriages occur early in the piece, leaving us with the opportunity to examine the marriage, and not just the wedding. As a result, we are able to compare the lots of the young, devout Dorothea Brooke (who marries a much older man and lives to regret it, through no fault of her own) and the local doctor Tertius Lydgate, whose marriage to Rosamund Vincy descends into a loveless torture, owing mainly to the selfishness and shallowness of his beautiful bride. Dorothea's sister, Celia, who marries more for convenience than real love in accepting the proposal of Sir James Chettham, the former suitor of the elder Brooke daughter, is (initially at least) far luckier in love poor Dorothea.

As can be seen from the previous section, one of the telling features of 'Middlemarch' is the intricate web of human connections which Eliot spins over the many pages of the eight books making up the novel. The limited size of Middlemarch, the inter-marrying between families, and the chance arrival of strangers who have a connection with one or more locals leads to a sense of 'wholeness': the book does not consist of a few separate stories loosely tied together; rather, each character and relationship is vital to the book as a whole. 'Middlemarch' (and the town itself) is a living, breathing organism which is difficult to reduce to the sum of its parts. One reading does not do justice to the skill with which Eliot has put the novel together, and each time you approach the book, more layers of subtlety are revealed.

Crotchety old Henry James (a great admirer of Eliot's, who, nonetheless, blew hot and cold about this particular book) also said that this was the book which pushed the idea of the Victorian novel to the limit. He wasn't being completely complimentary when he said that, but I prefer to understand it literally; with 'Middlemarch', Eliot had taken the genre of the sprawling, multi-plot novel as far as it could go. It literally wasn't possible to connect each part of a book to every other part more than she had done here.

The first time I read 'Middlemarch', I didn't really fully understand its greatness. Of course, that's probably because I got distracted by the fact that it was supposedly set in my home town and spent the whole time trying to spot local landmarks (which wouldn't have existed 135 years ago anyway...). This time, however, I enjoyed the book a lot more; in fact (if I may end on a pun) being sent to Coventry was never such fun.

Saturday 9 May 2009

Poorly Tony

Cough, cough.

I hate it when you get so sick that reading is no longer a pleasure, something I've experienced over the past couple of weeks. Nothing major, just bad timing (flu caused by going to work when I should have stayed in bed, followed by food poisoning caused by... well, something I ate, probably). Anyway, life has come to a bit of a standstill: little reading, virtually no work and absolutely no studying, so I'm starting to get way behind with that.

So, naturally, my current book is 'Middlemarch'.

All being well (and by all I mean me), I'll have got through it by the end of next week and be able to give you all my thoughts on Eliot's magnus opus. Then again, I may actually have to devote some time to the other things (and people!) in my life...

Watch this space (not literally, nothing will happen if you do, it's just an expression).

Sunday 3 May 2009

33 - 'Forbidden Colours' by Yukio Mishima

A promise is a promise. Back in February (book 12a - yes, 12a...), I related a tale of getting lost in the city and the purchases that resulted but only reviewed one of the two books I picked up. So now, ever true to my word, here's the second of my chance purchases.

'Forbidden Colours', set in post-war Japan, centres on the life of Yuichi Minami, an attractive young man who sets pulses racing (of both genders) wherever he goes. A chance encounter with a famous novelist and poet, Shunsuke Hinoki, who discovers the secret of Yuichis's homosexuality, is the catalyst for a series of gay flings and longer love affairs, both sexual and merely teasing. Shunsuke, after giving Yuichi 500,000 yen, persuades the young man to marry Yasuko, the woman arranged for him by both sets of parents.

This is, however, no act of generosity. The author is using Yuichi to get back at someone who has hurt him in love; he also manages to get the young man to start affairs with two married women where he is to drive them to distraction and then hurt them (one by sleeping with her husband...). Although Shunsuke is initially in control of the naive young man, Yuichi soon becomes emboldened by his success with both men and women and starts to play his own games. Eventually, Shunsuke begins to feel that he is falling for Yuichi's beauty himself...

In all the affairs and deception, the reader is made to observe the life of the outsider. Mishima depicts the life of gay society in the Tokyo of the time, with young men waiting in coffee shops to be picked up by captains of industry or one of the many rich foreigners occupying Japan. The sense of desperation at being forced underground and having to hide their true feelings from the 'normal' society feeds into the hedonistic behaviour seen at the cafes and parties the men frequent.

However, it is not only the men who feel excluded from society. The three main female characters, Yasuko (Yuichi's wife), Kyoko (a young society wife) and Mrs. Kaburagi (who falls for Yuichi only to find that her husband has gone slightly further with him than she has) also struggle to find a purpose in life. Yasuko continues to love her husband despite the months of abandonment and her suspicions of affairs with other women. It is only when Mrs. Kaburagi lies to her about being Yuichi's mistress (in order to deflect suspicion from his homosexuality) that she loses her attachment to him; ironically, it is at this time that Yuichi seems to be ready to become a good husband.

The hatred of women is one of the central themes of this book. In the homosexual world of the story, women are excluded and do not exist for most of the men. Yuichi is quite happy to help out with Shunsuke's revenge on his former mistresses; the writer insists that women are a waste of space and deserve no love, indeed cannot be loved. At this point, no doubt, most readers would be thinking that this sounds like a very painful book to read..

On the contrary, it's a very enjoyable novel. Despite the misogynous behaviour detailed above, the female characters give as good as they get, and Yuichi does not have things all his own way. Although seeming to fall on his feet again at the end of the book with the inheritance of 10 million yen, it is difficult to see where his life will go from here (although, considering that the last thing he does is to get his shoes shined, perhaps his breath-taking vanity is still intact!). His wife no longer loves him, and he gets no real satisfaction any more from his casual flings with men.

Of course, with Mishima, part of the value of reading is deciding how much comes from the author's own life. He was a bit of a misogynist (and a little xenophobic, just like Yuichi, who sleeps with hundreds of men, all of them Japanese), he allegedly had affairs with men, and (and there is no getting around this) he comitted seppuku, ritual suicide, in his mid-forties. Yes, he disembowelled himself and then had one of his retainers slice off his head. I'll just let that sink in for a moment.

On knowing this, it is only too tempting to look for traces of Mishima in his characters. Is he Shunsuke, the ageing death-obsessed, woman-hating writer who takes his own life? Is he Yuichi, the young, attractive woman-hating homosexual who has a sham married life? It certainly makes for interesting sub-text. In the end though, it is best to read and enjoy the book without trying to look for traces of the author; there is enough to ponder on without that.

In the end, the main theme which comes to mind is happiness. Is it possible to be happy in life? What do we need to be happy? Perhaps the most important requirement is to be yourself. None of the major characters in 'Forbidden Colours' seem to open up and let their true thoughts be known (which may have something to do with both the time and the place the novel is set in), and this may be the reason for their unhappiness. Whether Mishima was happy or not is another question entirely.